Today is a major change of focus for Sports Curmudgeon rants. Yesterday I attended the Heineken European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final match at the Aviva stadium in Dublin. My grandson (who served as my tutor and who answered my questions during the match), his parents and my long-suffering wife joined me in the event. Today is reporting on my first live rugby match.
At the beginning of the weekend, there were two Irish teams on opposite sides of the bracket draw; it was possible for the weekend to end with the reality of an all-Irish final game. Moreover, the final game could have been Munster versus Leinster.
- [Aside: To give you an idea of the rivalry that exists between Leinster and Munster let me tell you a story from about ten years ago when my wife and I were touring around Ireland. We were in Dublin one weekend and happened into a pub in the afternoon when Leinster was playing Northumberland (an English team) for the European Championship. Leinster won the game and the locals in the pub were most happy.
- The next weekend we were somewhere in the southern part of Ireland and once again happened into a pub while Leinster was playing Munster in an Irish League game. The score was tied at halftime and I mentioned to one of the locals there who was a Munster supporter that he must have been happy the week before when Leinster beat the English side in the championship game. The man said very simply that he could never pull for those devils in blue (Leinster’s colors are blue and white) and that he had been pulling for Northumberland.
- Given the history between the English and the Irish, recognize that this gentleman wanted an English team to beat an Irish team based in the rivalry between that particular Irish team and his favorite team. Fan loyalty runs deep in Ireland…]
Munster ended any hopes for an all-Irish final on Saturday losing to Saracens (a London-based team) in the semi-finals. So, on Sunday, there were no “distractions” for Leinster fans in terms of looking ahead to another match against Munster; just about all the 43,000 folks who made their way into the Aviva Stadium were focused on Leinster winning that day’s game against Toulouse. I say “just about all” of the fans because there was a smattering of Toulouse supporters in attendance.
The sides were introduced to grandeur and fanfare in the form of symphonic music; the fans responded with chants of “Leinster, Leinster” [pronounced Len-ster] with the same intonation that US basketball fans use to chant “Air-Ball, Air-Ball” at basketball games. That chant made many reappearances during the match; it was used as a way to try to exhort the team on the field to “hold the line” or to express pleasure at a long-gaining play.
With apologies to those readers here who know far more about rugby than I – and those who have played the sport while I have not – let me describe the players on the two sides from yesterday. There seemed to be 3 categories of players:
- If Keith Jackson were broadcasting a rugby game, he would probably identify three players on each side as “The Big Uglies”. These guys look like they are close to 6 feet tall and about 5 feet wide at the shoulders. Oh, and they do not appear to have anything resembling a neck.
- Each side had two players who looked to me as if they were moonlighting here from their “day-jobs” as power forwards in various European Basketball Leagues. The two players on each side who fit this description demonstrated a disposition on the pitch that would make them very effective as “enforcers” in a basketball setting.
- The rest of the players appear from afar like normal human athletes and all seem to possess well-above-average speed. That footspeed is important on offense and on defense because just about every player of this description seemed adept at open-field tackling.
Toulouse seemed to dominate the action for the first 7 or 8 minutes; they held the ball for almost that entire time – – but the only scoring they accomplished was a penalty kick for a 3-0 lead. From that point on, it certainly seemed to me that Leinster was in charge of the game. The difference in the game to these uninitiated eyes came as a result of:
- Leinster was the better team at open-field tackling. More Toulouse attempts to gain ground by running to the edge of the pitch resulted in loss of ground than happened to Leinster when they tried the same thing.
- Toulouse turned the ball over more often than Leinster did. I don’t know the proper term of art here, but I counted 4 recovered fumbles for Leinster and only 1 for Toulouse. More importantly, Toulouse had the ball about two yards from the Leinster goal line and tried a wide lateral pass to score the try; that pass was intercepted by a Leinster defender who ran the ball out about 30 meters before being tackled. That ended Toulouse’s best opportunity for a try in the game.
- Midway through the first half, Leinster “punted” to acquire field position; the Toulouse player received the punt and attempted to “punt it back” to Leinster for field position. A Leinster player came off the wing and blocked the punt off the foot of the Toulouse player and Leinster recovered it about 10 miters from the goal line leading to a try. My grandson in his tutorial role and other fans sitting around us in the stadium confirmed my suspicion that blocked punts of that ilk are not commonplace.
Rugby uses a video referee to confirm calls made on the field. The time delay for such review is minimal and the fans in the stadium get to see on the stadium video board the same replay shots that the video referee(s) see. The video referee negated a try scored by Leinster late in the first half; obviously, that was not a popular decision but with the replay on the stadium screen, the fans’ displeasure was very short-lived as it became totally obvious that a Leinster player had blocked an opponent who was attempting to tackle the ball carrier. That is a no-no in rugby…
There was another interesting thing I noted in the match. Whenever a team lined up to kick the ball through the uprights – – as a result of a penalty or as a conversion attempt after a try – – the video board would flash a message:
- “Respect The Kicker”
At that point the stadium would fall silent – you could hear yourself breathe – and it would remain that way until the kick was well on its way toward the goal. That was a distinct culture-shock for an American used to plenty of noise and raucous behavior as an attempt to distract a placekicker.
Leinster won the game handily by a score of 30-12; they were the better team yesterday. Leinster will play Saracens in Newcastle Upon Tyne (England) on May 11 for the Champions Cup. I shall ask my grandson for his thoughts on that game.
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………